Presented by Company One
In partnership with Northeastern University and Boston Public Library
with support from the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University
Written by David Valdes
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Dramaturgy by Jessica Scout Malone
Critique by Kitty Drexel
Streaming/Boston, MA — My wife and I used to joke that we couldn’t travel to 2006’s Arizona because they looked too brown. John McCain might confuse them for a Mexican immigrant and deport them. It was the kind of stupid BS we could joke about because we were young and ignorant. We didn’t know the hurt McCain’s policies were causing.
My brilliant wife (who gave me permission to discuss them in this article) is kānaka maoli, an indigenous person of Hawaiian descent. Their skin is a buff, maple syrup brown. Their smile is wide and dominates their broad face. They have a warm but reserved personality that belies a deep well of energy. They are easy to love.
People mistake my wife for Latinx. Often.
White people don’t know how to pronounce my wife’s first or last name: they don’t ask how; they butcher it when they say it aloud.
Their name is easier to spell or describe than to say aloud to a receptionist.
White people don’t know how to talk about race because it isn’t part of their everyday experience. Their whiteness shelters them. BIPOC don’t have this privilege.
I am lucky. My brilliant wife will patiently discuss race with me. They listen while I express my confusion, and correct me because they love me. Because other white people don’t discuss race and are entirely unaware of their microaggressions, we discuss race daily: immigration reform, the children held in cages at the Mexican/American border, how police officers choose to murder Black men, even voting restrictions.
Even in a town as openly embracing of difference as the People’s Republic of Camberville, it’s a necessity. Most white people, including me, have a great deal to learn about anti-racist human interactions.
Downtown Crossing is a composite play assembled from David Valdes’s interviews with current and former undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients, immigrant rights advocates, community organizers, and family members of the undocumented from the Greater Boston area. It is a production that teaches as it tells. These are characters with loves, hobbies, and careers – rich, full lives – that resemble anyone else’s. We are divided by paperwork only.
We meet Eleanor (Christina R. Chan), Bolade (Jean Philippe Darang), Lupe (Venuz Delmar), Jacinta (Graciela Femenia Tully), Declan, (Ben Harris), Adilson (Thomas Vorsteg), and Sarom (Eiko Yamamoto) as they ride the train to various destinations. They are your average, adult metro rider: courteous but nervous while they mind their own business for the T is dark and full of horrors.
The cast told us in a group introduction as they rode the orange line to the city’s center that “This never happened even though it’s happening right now.” The events aren’t true as told but are based on true stories. Undocumented immigrants walk among us.
The cast continued, “All of this is only for you, only for now.” It isn’t safe to share their personal stories but the theatre is a useful tool to share common experiences. Theatre uses pleasing lies to tell unfortunate truths.
They represent Boston’s unique immigrant population: Latinx, Asian, Black, and Irish. They do not match the nation’s expectations. They look exactly like the people you see speeding their ways through the DTX tunnels and throughways.
The cast should feel proud of their work. They deliver sincere and sympathetic performances that their audience believed. We were able to stretch our suspension of disbelief to include all of their characters’ fears, hopes, wins, and losses.
The cast’s performances were so believable that a viewer of Downtown Crossing might be tempted to respond to the actors’ performances the way so many people responded to Gabourey Sidibe’s work in the 2009 movie Precious. People assumed Sidibe was her character. This is racist. Good acting doesn’t mean these actors are speaking from experience. It’s a play, not a TED talk.
I am thoroughly impressed by the use of Zoom backgrounds and props in this production. The program for Downtown Crossing says that this show was rehearsed and performed entirely online. It doesn’t say if the actors were in the same room or not. The actors looked like they were actually sitting together rather than telecommuting into the performance. It was easy to believe that characters such as Lupe and Jacinta were sitting side-by-side on the red line.
The two were directed to pass each other props. The actors’ hands passed through the Zoom background to give and receive a banana and a red sports drink to each other. We weren’t surprised to see the props change hands. It was a moment of Zoom theatre magic that left a lasting impression n us.
Also magical? See the orange and red lines so clean. The MTBA map that served as the opening backdrop and the interior train images serving as a set were sparkling clean. I hope everyone paid attention because we’ll never see the cars looking that clean again!
In his talkback, Valdes told his audience that he intentionally didn’t directly quote anyone. His characters are representations of many people. This means he can incorporate as many people as he likes into the play while also protecting innocent people who are just trying to live their lives.
Towards the beginning of Downtown Crossing, Lupe says that the color of her skin confuses (white people/potential ICE reps). Her melanin says that she’s an immigrant but her clothes say that she’s a US citizen. This is racism in its most basic form.
Several years ago, my wife and I were sitting in an airport across from two men who were discussing in Spanish where my wife could be from. One man said to the second, if my wife was Mexican wouldn’t they understand them? As one, the men looked at my wife who did indeed understand what they were saying. Rather than look up, my wife kept reading their book. We both regret that they didn’t pop their head up to make intense eye contact with the men in what could have been a melodramatic “gotcha!” moment. We reminisce and giggle.
White supremacy tells us that the best US citizens are white. A colonizer’s mindset tells us that North America’s original peoples are less entitled to their ancestral lands than the white colonizers who stole them. People to assume that my wife, an American native of the Hawai’ian islands, isn’t a citizen. They have more right to be here than I do.
It is not a review’s job to convince its reader that immigrant, migrant, and asylum seeker lives matter. I shouldn’t have to explain why you should care about others even if they don’t look, sound, think, or act like you. My fellow white people, confront your inherent white supremacy and talk with your white friends and family about your whiteness. Our unexamined bigotry is killing people.